John 18:1-12 Arresting the Messiah
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 2, 2007. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you around you. First of all, let’s give a shout out to Rev. Henry Lewis who is celebrating his 90th birthday and 60th anniversary of his ordination. Henry and I both served as chaplain of Moravian College, about 30 years apart. Last Sunday, Hope Moravian Church had its anniversary service and dedicated its reconstructed Gemeinhaus. If you are ever driving out to Clemmons on Stratford, take a brief detour across the railroad tracks to Hope Church Road and stop by to see the Gemeinhaus. What Frank Brewer, pastor David Merritt, Albert Atwood and others worked for years to build a replica of the original house of worship and school of the Hope congregation. Last week I saw three of my high school football coaches: Coach Crater, Coach Cox, and Coach Taylor. It was good to have an opportunity to thank them for teaching me more than just how to block and tackle. Speaking of teaching, we are now in full swing at Wake Forest. We’ve got five Moravians studying at the divinity school this fall, all of them have had productive careers before the Holy Spirit drove them into seminary. This is Labor Day weekend, of course, and I hope you will take a moment to pray for all of the people who labor for us, especially those who work long hours for minimal pay. We had a good discussion after we off the air last week. We remember the many white people who marched alongside black people during the Civil Rights movement, and we heard a class member’s experience of being with Christians in China after the death of Mao. Against all expectations, the church had grown dramatically during the years of Communist persecution and emerged from tribulation vibrant and expansive. Despite the abuse they had suffered, those believers continued to serve and love their neighbors.
Overview of the Passion Narrative Today we begin the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is perhaps ironic that we come to the story of Jesus’ arrest this week when our newspapers are filled with stories about the resignation of the Attorney General. Jesus’ arrest and trial took place nearly 2000 years, but even today we struggle with fundamental issues of fairness, justice, and the rule of law. Many of the saints who followed Jesus also found themselves imprisoned, abused, and executed unjustly.
Each of the canonical gospels tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion in slightly different ways. Since Luke and Matthew rely heavily on Mark’s Gospel, their accounts are the most similar, but there are still some significant differences among the three. Mark’s gospel is the oldest account, but there appears to be layers of tradition within Mark’s account. Mark took a traditional account of the passion story and added several details, perhaps from bits of oral tradition. The oldest version probably told a simple story of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation by the Jewish Council, the sentencing by Pilate, and Jesus’ crucifixion as a self-proclaimed Messiah. Mark then added colorful details like the centurion’s confession of faith and the ripping of the veil in the Temple.
John’s account of the passion has the same basic elements as the original passion story found in Mark, but John includes many different details. There are a surprising number of parallels between John and Luke (40 in all – see Brown, 791), which has led some scholars to propose that John was edited by Luke. However, the differences between John and Luke are so pronounced that modern scholars generally agree that John used sources independent of the other gospels. The similarities between Luke and John probably point to common sources preserved in oral tradition, perhaps by the Beloved Disciple. What is most surprising is not that John has some parallels in Luke, but that John’s version differs so much from Mark.
For example, John does not mention Gethsemane, and Jesus is not in agony when he prays. There is no mention of a meeting of the whole Sanhedrin to condemn Jesus, nor does John give the time of the crucifixion. Simon the Cyrene does not appear to help with the cross, the skies do not go dark, nor does the veil in the Temple get torn. Most significantly, Jesus does not cry out that his Father has forsaken him. As we go through the story, I’ll point out other unique features of John’s gospel. The differences between the four accounts of the most important event in the life of Jesus are so great that skeptics in the 19th century rejected all four accounts as fiction. Few serious scholars would make that claim today since it is hard to imagine why anyone would invent a story of the Messiah being arrested and executed by the authorities.
Also, we have learned a lot about witnesses over the past century. Had the four accounts agreed on all the details, then we would be more suspicious. The differences actually give greater credibility to the story since many of the differences are the kind we would expect from multiple witnesses. We can never be certain of all the facts, but as Raymond Brown puts it, “One historical fact is lucidly clear: Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced by a Roman prefect to be crucified on the political charge that he claimed to be the ‘King of the Jews.’ On this Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources agree.” (792)
As followers of Jesus today, we are interested in more than the bare historical facts. We want to know what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means for us and the world. We need to examine the Bible and learn how the first theologians and evangelists interpreted these things. It might bother skeptics and historians that John tells the story differently from the other gospels, but those differences offer us valuable insights into the nature of God and redemption. We will spend several weeks on the final chapters of John, beginning with the first 12 verses of ch. 18.
Kidron Valley All of the gospels agree that after dinner Jesus and the disciples left the room where they ate. Biblical scholars speculate that they planned to sleep outside because they did not have lodging in the city. Jerusalem was always overcrowded during Passover, and many people stayed in the suburbs. We know Jesus and the disciples were used to sleeping in the open, and it appears from Luke’s Gospel that they often spent the night on the Mount of Olives. So, that may be why they went out for the evening. It is also plausible that they were afraid that someone who knew where they had eaten might lead the authorities to them. Whatever the motivation for going out, John says that they crossed the Kidron Valley and went into a garden.
We are accustomed to saying “The Garden of Gethsemane,” but that is because we are blending separate accounts. In the Mark and Matthew Jesus goes to Gethsemane, which means “oil press” was probably at the foot of the Mount of Olives. John does not mention Gethsemane. Instead he says that Jesus and the disciples crossed the “winter-flowing Kidron,” which is a wadi that has water only in the winter months. It would have been dry at Passover. One of the readings assigned for the synagogue in the months leading up to Passover in the 1st century is I Kings 2:37. In that verse, Solomon warns Shimei that if he crosses the Kidron he will die. Many scholars speculate that this is why John mentioned the Kidron. Other scholars think that he did so because the Kidron stream carried away the blood from the Temple sacrifices. Both allusions point to death, which may have been what John intended. Or this may another place where John has recorded an historical fact omitted by other sources. Later tradition put together the details from John and the Synoptic gospels and found a place across the Kidron near the Mount of Olives for pilgrims to visit and remember Jesus’ last prayer.
Garden It is only John’s Gospel that says that they went to a garden. Christian theologians in Egypt centuries ago speculated that John was connecting Jesus’ struggle of redemption to Adam’s failure in the Garden of Eden. There may be a more prosaic reason for mentioning the garden. John says Jesus often went there with his disciples, which makes sense in John’s gospel because John says Jesus spent many months in the area around Jerusalem. Assuming that John is correct that Jesus often went to this particular spot, it makes sense that it would have been a garden, which is symbolic of life and birth. We have seen that John’s gospel focuses on the ideas of grace, truth, and life. The idea that Jesus spent his last moments of freedom in a garden seems fitting.
Betrayal But it was in the garden that he was betrayed. According to John, Judas knew that Jesus often went to this garden and that it would be a good place to arrest him. Some commentators are surprised that the authorities did not arrest Jesus as soon as he caused trouble in Jerusalem instead of waiting until Thursday night. Interpreters also question what Judas could have “betrayed” about Jesus. I think such skepticism shows naivety about empires. The authorities were wise to seize Jesus when he was virtually alone. That way they could control public opinion. They did not want people who might question the legitimacy of their actions. It would be much better if the crowds saw Jesus already captured, already humbled, already condemned by the law. They would see him as a common criminal rather than as a heroic rebel. Governments still do this, by the way. The methods are more advanced, but the principle is still the same. Act in secret but declare to the public that everything was in accordance with the law.
The Cohort Judas does not kiss Jesus in John’s Gospel. It is hard to know whether John omitted the story of the kiss or whether Mark added the kiss as a way to show just how intimate betrayal is. John portrays Judas as the guide for the soldiers and police. This is another detail unique to John that has caused a lot of debate among scholars. The text calls the soldiers a cohort, which was a technical term for a group of 600 Roman soldiers. In the NT the word is only used for Roman soldiers. We probably should not assume that the entire 600 man cohort came out to arrest Jesus, but it is interesting that only John’s gospel specifically mentions that Roman soldiers were there. I think John is probably accurate on this point. If the authorities feared that Jesus was plotting a Passover insurrection, they would come in force to arrest him and quell any possible uprising. Successful empires provide muscle for the local police. From time to time you have to show people the hand that works the puppet. I suspect the soldiers were surprised by the lack of opposition. Judas did his job better than they expected.
One of the reasons this detail about the soldiers seems plausible is that it runs counter to John’s tendency to place the blame for the crucifixion on the Jews rather than the Romans. We will return to this idea when we get to Pilate, but for now I want you to notice that John leaves no doubt that Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers serving under the command of the prefect of Palestine. Some have argued that the Jewish Council would not have allowed Jewish police and Roman soldiers to work together this way, but both Jewish and Roman historians record that Pilate and Caiaphas were cruel, corrupt, and worked together (Brown, 798). Caiaphas had the longest tenure of any high priest, but he was deposed shortly after Pilate was recalled by Rome, indicating that Pilate kept him in office It is reasonable to assume that Caiaphas had informed Pilate about Jesus and requested assistance in arresting him.
Lanterns John adds another detail missing in the other accounts, namely that the soldiers came with lanterns and torches. This might have theological implications since it highlights the fact that Jesus’ opponents worked in darkness, the realm of Satan. But I think this is probably just good historical writing. If you want to arrest someone in a garden at night, you need lanterns to make sure you get the right person. It also adds visual effects to the drama, as Mel Gibson demonstrated in The Passion. Speaking of Mel, we should note that there is very little violence in the biblical account of the arrest of Jesus, but Mel exaggerates the violence of the soldiers beyond reason.
I Am So far, John’s version of Jesus’ arrest is very plausible as history, but what comes next appears to be more theological than historical. Rather than Judas coming to Jesus and identifying him for the soldiers, John says that Jesus stepped forward to ask the police whom they were seeking. When they reply that they have a warrant to arrest Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus identifies himself by saying “I Am.” This may be the most dramatic “I Am” statements in John but it is often lost in translation. English Bibles insist on adding the word “he” so that Jesus says “I am he” rather than claiming to be “I Am.” The police fall before the divine name, much like an ancient Jewish legend that Pharaoh fell down when Moses uttered the divine name (Brown, 818). The meaning in John is clear. Even the Roman cohort sent to arrest Jesus were awed by him and had no power over him. Jesus was not violently taken; he gave himself up.
Protecting the Disciples This is a very important scene in John’s Gospel because it fulfills the prayer Jesus has just prayed. At this point of crisis, Jesus is concerned about his followers. The disciples escape because Jesus intercedes for them. He convinces the soldiers to let them go free. Only Judas will accompany with the forces of darkness, and he will go willingly. Viewed pragmatically, the eleven live because Jesus orders them not to fight back. Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away. The four gospels agree that Jesus did not fight against his enemies with the weapons of destruction and hate. The cup that he was given to drink was not the bittersweet wine of revenge and mayhem. It was the cup of salvation.
All of the gospels record that one of the disciples attacked one of the servants of the high priest and cut off his ear, but it is John that tells us the disciple was Peter. John also gives the name of the slave, Malchus, which is a great Bible trivia answer. The obscurity of Malchus has led commentators over the centuries to invent symbolic explanations for the name, but “such imaginative explanations are not less demanding on one’s credulity than the possibility that John’s tradition preserved accurate information.” (Brown, 812) By the way, in John’s version, Peter merely sliced off the earlobe, and there is no mention of Jesus healing the man. Once again, we see that John is more restrained than the other gospels when it comes to miracles.
Conclusion For much of the summer we have been reading about the Last Supper in John’s gospel and Jesus’ final teachings and prayer. His final word to his disciples before his trial is “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” John does not try to explain the mystery of why Jesus had to drink from the cup of betrayal, but he does show Jesus facing the ordeal willingly. Though he is taken away by large company of soldiers who have bound him, Jesus remains in charge of the situation in John. He will be taken to the home of Annas, who was the head of the clan that controlled the priesthood. As a suspected terrorist and insurrectionist, Jesus had no rights. Next week we will see that he was subjected to a show trial at which his guilt was assumed. The authorities felt no shame in abusing him, insulting him, and torturing him because he was condemned as a blasphemer.
Their only concern was that the crowds be convinced that they were acting legally and for the public good. It was not enough to kill Jesus; they had to show people that Jesus was powerless against them; that resistance to the Empire and the Priesthood is futile. But they failed. They failed because Jesus refused to play the game they had set up. He did not respond in violence. He would not return evil for evil. Neither would he lie to save himself. Jesus will remain truthful and faithful to the end. And in the end, he triumphed without armies, without swords, without torture, and without lies. As we read this sacred story today, we need to ask ourselves whether we will follow the path of Jesus or the path of Pilate and Caiaphas.